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Flowers in the Adriatic

Part 9 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

A great way to start the day

It’s a gloomy, rainy morning. And I’ve discovered yet another problem with our hotel: the pillows are rock-hard, and my right ear feels flattened and numb. I look around our cobweb-filled room lit by the dismal grey gloom, decide that dismay is no way to start the day, trudge to the bathroom wrapped in a blanket to keep out the penetrating chill, and turn on the hot water.

It takes about ten minutes to arrive, though when it does, it’s blessedly beyond tepid; at least there’s a heat source somewhere in this hotel. Breakfast is no less dismal; despite a few house-made jams, the selection consists of crusty but flavorless bread, American cereals, bland bolognas (calling them salume would be more than they deserve) and cheeses, and canned fruit. Even the coffee isn’t good. In Italy. We leave the hotel discouraged, our mood as grey and soggy as the weather.

Almost immediately, however, matters improve. In the center of Cormòns, Theresa visits the post office to mail our Venetian postcards (we can never get these things sent on time) while I stop in at the local salumeria for a few supplies. Calling up my linguistic courage, I stumblingly ask the proprietress for a selection of local charcuterie. She brightens, and with slow and careful pronunciation works her way through the differences between a few of the scores of cured pork products hanging behind the counter. Yet again, the helpfulness of the Italian people – especially when it comes to matters culinary – is inspiring, and I leave with perhaps a bit more of the local cured pork than I really need for our lunchtime picnics. Though if our hotel breakfasts don’t get any better, perhaps we’ll find another use for them.

[castello miramare]

A man’s home
[parco di miramare]

A path didn’t diverge in the woods

Castles above the sand

The drive south on the autostrada is as dull as such things usually are, though we find some minor amusement in the interesting array of passing trucks, most of which seem to be from Eastern rather than Western Europe, not to mention more distant locales like Turkey. Once we exit the freeway for the coastal road along the Adriatic, however, the scenery brightens rather dramatically. We can’t see very far across the water to our right, thanks to a thick and descended back of clouds and fog, and the plateau of vineyards to our left is similarly hidden from view, but it’s still a good deal prettier than anything we’ve seen since Valdobbiadene.

Castello di Miramare was built by and for an American, which is a bit of a surprise. What’s not surprising is that it’s closed on the day we wished to see it; this is, after all, Italian time we’re on. Thankfully, the beautiful grounds that surround it are open, and we spend a relaxing period strolling the park’s tree- and flower-lined pathways. For all Venice’s innumerable charms, greenery is not one of them, and while this is sculpted nature, it’s still nature. The park seems to be teeming with cats both feral and wild-curious; we tell them apart by whether they wait or flee at our approach. One is especially friendly and bold, and leaps onto Theresa’s lap just as she sits on a bench, spending only a brief few seconds surveying her lap before settling down for a nap. He seems so contented, it’s difficult to leave, and when we do he sits on the bench, watching us retreat with as much sadness as a cat can muster.

Lady in white

We retrace our steps a bit for a late lunch – late enough that they seem momentarily indecisive as to whether or not they should seat us – at Alla Dama Bianca in Duino, a classy seaside restaurant done up in, yes, white, plus lots of windows. I start with a zingy and surprisingly crispy plate of sardines in saor (which, on the menu, they actually refer to as “in savor”), followed by a bizarre pasta dish of mixed seafood and fresh porcini. “Surf & turf,” I’d call it if I could. I don’t know if the combination works, exactly, but all the elements are delicious, and the various seaborne edibles and mushrooms are all cooked as perfectly as the pasta.

The wine list focuses on local products, which means even those who consider themselves knowledgeable about Friulian wines based on the export market will find many names here that they do not know, coming largely from the hidden plateau above the autostrada and its non-prestige regions of Carso and Isonzo. It’s exciting, and when I spy a name I’ve heard more than once from the locals, I can’t resist.

Zidarich 2005 Carso Vitovska (Friuli Venezia Giulia) – As obviously unfiltered as it is obviously one of these extended-maceration, naked-experimentation wines for which Friuli is becoming famous. And it’s exciting, with powerful aromatics of spice and soda, plus the pristine, pure sensation of glacier water on the palate…yet if water could be said to have complexity, this has it. The finish is long and beautifully transparent. What a wine!


City in grey

Trieste is, as Theresa immediately declares when we enter, an Eastern European city. The architecture, the colors, the feel are separated from the west, perhaps as much by the narrow Adriatic as by its long, non-western history. On the street one hears a mix of languages – Italian, Slovenian, various Friulian dialects, others – all with a more aggressive, harder-edged accent than is the Italian norm. We ascend to the pinnacle of the city to visit open-air Roman ruins and the beautiful mosaics of the old duomo, enjoying the fine views over the water and the grey-white landscape, then descend again and search, far longer than we’d wish, for a parking spot. As we approach the end of the workday, this gets harder and harder.

The piazzas of the Trieste shoreline are grand indeed, and the most famous – Piazza dell’Unità – is a truly majestic urban space. We wander for a while, taking in both the majestic façades and the street-level energy (which seems considerable), but as darkness and a chill descend on the city, we find ourselves drawn to one of the many local bars, nearly all of which seem to heavily promote their local wine selections.

[piazza l’unita]

A slice of piazza
[l’unita at night]

Time for reflection

The James Joyce may not be the most regionally-authentically-named spot in Trieste, but it’s bustling with locals, and after a brief stint at a tiny corner table, we cozy up to the bar. There’s pressing of fresh oranges going on, and Theresa opts for the juice from one of these while I have a small cup of warming, and excellent, Illy coffee, followed by a couple of glasses of local wine.

Le Vigne di Zamò 2005 Malvasia (Friuli Venezia Giulia) – Perfumed and lightly spritzy, but fairly forgettable.

Sancin 2004 Bianco (Friuli Venezia Giulia) – Light and crisp, with some inherent character that’s nonetheless a bit elusive, and a bit of fat on the finish. This is OK.

A rough-faced man slides into the seat next to us, joking in guttural Slovenian with the bartender, then overhearing us speaking English to each other. Igor introduces himself as a plumber “from the Slovenian minority” (he notes with a wry smile) who’s on the way home from work, speaks six languages (which he demonstrates), and knows a good deal about the local wine scene, which leads to a long chat about the qualitative and stylistic differences between tocai friulano and ribolla gialla. It’s the sort of encounter that makes me love travel: here we are in a bar in Trieste – one named after an Irish poet – talking in English with a Slovenian plumber about the wines of his adopted Italian region.

The drive back is quiet, and when we return to the hotel, the pillows have been changed, at least one of the cobwebs has been removed, and – praise the gods of maintenance – the room is warm.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson